Kids may be deposited in theatre classes for all kinds of reasons: to foster their self-confidence and public speaking skills, to help them work through issues, to keep them out of trouble, to give them an outlet for excess energy, to give their parents a break, to make them big stars. StageWrite has a different focus. The theatre-in-education program uses drama classes to help kids in San Francisco schools build their reading and writing skills.
"We're focusing on elementary and early intervention to kids who might struggle with literacy," says cofounder and executive director Elana Lagerquist, a San Francisco native, at StageWrite's small office in the Sunset District. "Our original goal was to help kids who are disengaged, who have high levels of illiteracy in their families and communities and struggle with basic reading and writing in elementary school, because eventually everything you learn is through literacy. You learn to read, and then you read to learn. However, everything we do works with a wide range of ability levels, including gifted and talented kids who are bored to death in school and kids who are second-language learners who are just trying to get a grasp of the English language."
Unlike many youth drama programs, StageWrite isn't geared so much to help kids learn the magic of theatre but to use the magic of theatre to help kids learn. "We're not a conservatory that's about the art form of the theatre only," Lagerquist says. "We're about how to engage kids in their learning to have successful, productive lives without the ultimate goal of becoming an actor, director or a playwright but to explore their own creative potential to do whatever they want with. And some of them will become amazing performers and directors and playwrights because of this introduction, but that's not our ultimate goal."
Kindergartners and first graders take part in the Story Drama program, based on the work of the Creative Arts Team in New York. "There's no performance," Lagerquist explains. "It's all about kids being part of the story frame that teaching artists bring in. They create their own characters within this frame, and there are problems that the characters encounter, and as a group they have to problem solve what to do about the turtle taking the magic drum from the community and not using it to make food like it's intended but instead playing the drum and acting crazy with it. Each classroom makes different choices on how to deal with this problem. All the stories and the problems mirror some issues that kids may be dealing with, whether it's about violence in the community or sharing or different members of the community not taking part. And it's not moralistic. We don't go in with a right answer. We talk about the consequences of the choices that the kids made—what worked and what didn't work. The literacy element is focused on oral language development and how they can talk about the things they're thinking and feeling via these characters and express themselves within a community of learners."
The second and third grades go on to the Stories on Stage program, in which the students are given a grade-level text of children's literature that they use to explore story elements of setting, character and plot, bringing the story to life through drama games. In fourth and fifth grade the students start writing their own plays, and a handful of the fifth graders are selected for an intensive playwriting workshop that culminates in a performance at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in May, with professional actors performing the short plays the kids wrote. "
They go to the de Young and they pick a piece of artwork, and they write a play based on that piece of artwork," Lagerquist explains. "For example, this kid picked this sculpture and decided it was a crazy magic toy that lived in the basement of a boy who doesn't have any friends and just plays with the toy. But then he starts making friends, and he basically abandons the toy that he found, and the toy gets very jealous and wants revenge. The student writes the play in a series of playwriting workshops with teaching artists, and then we bring in professional actors and they have a few rehearsals. It's done as a staged reading—but a glorified staged reading. Some of the kids write songs, and a local band writes the music. And the kid sits in a chair that says "The Playwright" and watches their play for a 300-seat audience of people who get to see it come to life in a pretty exciting way."
Lagerquist and local actor Carrie Paff started StageWrite in 2003 as a drama program at the now defunct John Swett Alternative Elementary School in the Western Addition. "When we started, I was a second grade teacher with a theatre background," Lagerquist says. "Carrie and I knew each other from Santa Cruz. We had studied theatre at UCSC for our BAs, and then she moved to New York to be an actress, and I got my teaching credential to work with kids who struggle with school here in the city. I was so overwhelmed by the connections I kept seeing between the theatre and teaching. It's somewhat of a performance; you have to engage your audience, and if you don't you suffer worse consequences than a bunch of old middle-class white people just being bored. The consequences are chairs fly across the room. But I kept playing drama games, basic actor warmup things, and they would love them, but it would get kind of out of hand because I didn't know how to manage the room and I had this laundry list of skills I had to teach. After three years of teaching I started researching graduate programs in educational theatre."
She found drama therapy programs, but that wasn't quite what she wanted to do. Then she saw Danny Hoch perform his monologue Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop and was inspired to learn that he used theatre to work with people in jails and hospitals. Looking further into these programs, she found her way to the Creative Arts Team, which uses theatre as a teaching aid in New York public schools.
"The Creative Arts Team had a program where you could work for them during the day as a teaching artist in the five boroughs and they'd pay your graduate school tuition," Lagerquist recalls. "I wound up getting a leave of absence from the district here and spending two years in New York. Meanwhile, Carrie found the Creative Arts Team because they hired professional actors. So for two totally different reasons, we both wound up working for the Creative Arts Team, reconnecting and saying one day we should start a theatre company. Then I came back and put all the things I'd learned to use in an actual second grade classroom, and it was amazing. The teachers at the school were like, 'What are you doing in there? They're laughing, they're excited, I see their skills on your bulletin board.' So I started doing professional development for teachers after school, because you can lead a drama game and not be an actor. Carrie, in the meantime, gave up acting in New York and decided to move back to California. The school wrote a grant to move me out of the classroom and do professional development for the teachers and set up a K–5 drama program. So I'm like, 'Carrie, join me!'"
The two of them came up with a sequential, schoolwide program for John Swett and ran it for three years before the school closed. It was at that point that they turned the program into a nonprofit under the fiscal sponsorship of Intersection for the Arts and named it StageWrite.
"We found our new sites, which were Starr-King Elementary and Megan Furth Academy, and this semester we're now in five different school sites," Lagerquist says. "But our goal isn't to be big and massive; it's to be really deep and sustained in a few schools where principals and teachers are really involved. Beyond the residency work, our goal also is the professional development of classroom teachers and how they can use this stuff. By then Carrie had gone back into acting and was having success as an actress here locally, and she's moved out of being part of the administration of StageWrite. We've been growing every year, slowly and soundly, in a way that feels comfortable, and we've moved into training teaching artists. There are a lot of people who have dabbled in it or do it to sustain their life as a theatre artist, but one of our struggles is trying to find people who are really into it for the genuine intersection of theatre and education."
In addition to the schoolwide programs where teaching artists work with every class an hour a week during the school day, StageWrite now does more limited programs in one or two grades at McKinley Elementary School in the Castro, Ulloa in the outer Sunset and Grattan in the Cole Valley area, employing 10 teaching artists among the various schools.
"Our goal is to be at whole school sites, so every student in the school has drama," Lagerquist says. We're not the program where they say, 'Our third graders want something this year,' and we go in. There are plenty of other arts organizations that do that really well. What we focus on is trying to maintain a whole school relationship. We will do separate things where we cater to schools, but that's not really our intended purpose. We'll only do that if there's a reason that makes sense and fits within our bigger picture of literacy and engagement of language arts learning through theatre."
Currently the students who take part in the advanced workshop and de Young performance are all from one school, Starr-King, but Lagerquist says they'll have to explore ways to bring together the different school populations in the future. This year, there will be three performances: a Friday daytime show for school audiences at the de Young on May 13, a Monday night show at Potrero Hill Neighborhood House on May 16 and then the main event, the Friday night show at the de Young on May 20.
The teaching artists help act out the plays during the writing process, but the actors who'll perform in the staged readings come in about three weeks before the show for rehearsals, which aren't with the students but at night at various locations around town. "Then we invite the actors to come in and meet the kids once before the show," Lagerquist explains. "The kids get to see actors they haven't seen before act their plays and give them some direction: 'I meant that to be more of an irritating character, not a cool character.' We try to prioritize actors of color who reflect the cultural backgrounds of the students who are in the show, because we feel like that mentoring is important, even if they're not working one-on-one as mentors."
One of the ground rules in the students' plays early on is that there shouldn't be more than one human character, so the stories they come up with are full of animals, objects and forces of nature embodied on stage, which means the kids' imaginations and the actors' chops both get a workout. Mostly, Lagerquist says, it's fascinating to get to know the way these kids think through the stories they tell onstage.
"You get into a fifth grader's mind and you just ride the wave," she says. "The themes they pick and the stories really mirror issues they're dealing with in their own lives and allows them the metaphor of these often inanimate objects. A lot of people appreciate the mind of a child, but we don't actually go that deep into hearing them express themselves. And it's so raw what they say—there's very little editing and revising. Even though other people are playing these characters, if you know the child you hear their voice in it so strongly and clearly. It's so neat to see a 10- or 11-year-old's thinking animated."